It's term 2, so NAPLAN is back in the media.
Debate about its usefulness and negative perceptions will rage from now until the results come out, well after the race has been run (but spare a thought for those markers wading their way through persuasive arguments from eight-year-olds).
Then researchers will devise theories about what the data says to them through this lens and that lens. Next, newspapers will create league tables about the "best" schools, which really just labels other schools as "worse".
It is easy to see why we never talk about the usefulness of NAPLAN and what it would mean if it no longer existed.
As president of the Australian Parents Council, an advocacy body within education, I feel it would be quite remiss of me not to advocate in appropriate ways. That's why I am happy to shout to the rooftops that my youngest son will be participating in NAPLAN this year and I'm happy to explain why, because I believe we need to have a fuller conversation about it.
I believe that by sending my son to participate in NAPLAN, I am using one of the very few avenues available to a parent to ensure transparency and accountability in our school system.
Let's think back to the inception of NAPLAN, and more precisely what it was not designed to do. It was never developed to be a big brother for teacher practice. It was never developed to tell me how "well-rounded" my child is. It was never developed to be a tool to be used by principals for annual performance reviews of their teachers.
Because school education is constitutionally a state-based responsibility, it has historically been very difficult to get a clear understanding of how education has been evolving nationally. Before NAPLAN there was no mechanism to easily measure how all Australian students were progressing. There was a mishmash of information and testing going on in schools that made it very difficult to see the big picture. Now we have a system called the National Assessment Program, which includes both a test of the foundational skills of literacy and numeracy, sample testing of other core learning areas and national and international measures of progress as well.
So NAPLAN isn't just about your child's progress, although that is the bit we love the most. Its bigger function is to measure the progress of our entire education system, a diverse system made up of institutions across different states and territories, a Catholic system and an independent sector. A diverse system that encompasses students, teachers, principals and support staff. A system made up of bureaucrats who write policy (they need to be accountable too) and politicians (who certainly need to be held accountable - and they are, usually, in three-to-four-year cycles).
Our education system is also made up of other bodies as well - including ACARA for the curriculum and AITSL for teacher quality - and we need to ensure that there is accountability, transparency and equity across our entire complex education system.
NAPLAN is simply one accountability measure. I see encouraging my kids to participate, within their capabilities and to the best of their abilities, as an extension of my democratic rights.
We also have the ability to withdraw our kids from these tests. If you listen to some parts of the media, you may be getting the sense that it is the right thing to do, as a protest. But I'd encourage you to ask yourself: what you are protesting exactly?
NAPLAN results are just one factor in deciding additional funding for schools. As a society we know we need to fund additional support for the kids that need it. And in a country as vast and diverse as ours, there are myriad factors that need to be considered. If you have a child that is in an assessment year and you are worried about the impact of NAPLAN on your kid, I ask you to consider the impact withdrawing your child will have.
If you are a First Nations family, we need your child's data to support the changes in policy desperately required. If you are rural or remote, your child is part of a small sample size and NAPLAN may have a big impact on policy decisions that enhance your small school. If you are from a culturally and linguistically diverse background, we need to know what additional supports are required and these results feed those policy decisions. If we withdraw our kids with autism or ADHD or anxiety, we have the potential to skew the results, affecting not only future funding but the position of policy.
Yes, we do have other levers that feed into special needs funding, like the Nationally Consistent Collection of Data on School Students with Disability, but we should still be looking at the differences within the context of the whole cohort. That way deficiencies can be accounted for through meaningful policy adjustments.
Now, I know this might sound like I'm the world's biggest NAPLAN cheerleader - but I'm not wedded to the concept. I am, though, absolutely wedded to ensuring there is transparency and accountability in our education system. NAPLAN critics rarely offer an alternative to the test, with all its shortfalls - and if they do, they tend to still be computerised testing or assessing options. I even read one suggestion of an "alternative system that gives the responsibility to teachers" - which not only adds to the workload of teachers but makes them responsible for achievement and performance. I know with absolutely certainty there is only so much my son's teachers can do to help him achieve.
It also fails to address the need to make the entire system accountable. I know some suggest accurate data can be compiled from sample testing, but when I spoke to an analyst, he remarked that whenever you reduce the sample size you reduce the accuracy.
We have to ask ourselves: is a sample going to accurately measure and speak to the accountability and transparency of the entire system? If not, are we OK with that for this vast and diverse nation of ours? History shows us that there are plenty of places to hide, and issues to ignore or overlook, within our education system. But I'm not comfortable with the gap between Indigenous students and the rest, are you? NAPLAN has allowed us to measure that gap and how it is progressing. As parents, and as citizens, that knowledge - and the other insights that assessments like NAPLAN can deliver - allow us to advocate for better education and support where it's needed.
NAPLAN may have its negatives, but it is important for us to also acknowledge its positives.
- Jenni Rickard is president of the Australian Parents Council.